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No Words: Chapter 9

Everything was fine. Everything was going to be great.

I just had to be normal and act like I didn’t know that my mortal enemy, Will Price, had paid for me and my friends to be here.

Wait. Was he paying our stipends, too?

What in the name of sweet kitty heaven was going on here?

Never mind. It didn’t matter. I could do this. I could totally do this.

Fortunately there was wine. Members of the catering team—they were the ones in white shirts and black trousers—were walking around the tables with bottles, asking the guests who were filing into their seats which they preferred, red or white.

Perfect. Wine would help. Straight vodka would be better, but wine would work.

Letting the crumpled place card I was holding fall to the sand—it was nothing but a sweat-stained swatch of cardboard now, but completely biodegradable—I snatched up a glass from a table I was passing on my way back to the one I’d been assigned, then held it out to the closest server.

“Red or white?” she asked with a bright smile. “Tonight we have a lovely Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc.”

“Either,” I said. “Both. I don’t care.”

The server smiled and poured a generous serving of red wine into my glass, half of which I managed to down in almost a single gulp just as a smiling Molly approached.

This would have been fine—I could have handled a conversation with a children’s librarian just then—if I hadn’t spied Will Price strolling behind her, looking casually princely in the glow of the lamps and moonlight.

All right, I told myself. This was it. Our showdown. I was going to find out exactly what in the whiskers was going on, then let him have it. He wouldn’t be feeling so princely once I was through with him. That’s right, buddy, I’ve got your number. You better have an apology and some explanations ready about what’s going on around here or you’re the one who’s going to get kicked back to the author bus.

“Oh, Ms. Wright, there you are,” Molly said brightly. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Have you met Will Price? He’s one of our festival’s board members, and a writer, as well.”

Wait. Will Price was a donor and a member of the festival’s board?

And she really thought I hadn’t heard of him? Was she unaware of the plagiarism scandal that had linked Will’s name with mine forever, much to my everlasting chagrin? Did she not know we’d all received a copy of The Moment in our swag bags, and that some of us were reading every word?

Then again, Molly was a librarian living in the Florida Keys on a small island that felt a million miles from the rest of the world. And judging by that sheriff’s smile and how close she seemed to giving birth, she’d obviously been keeping herself busy doing other things.

“We’ve met,” I said, and boldly stretched my inky right hand toward Will while plastering the smile across my face that Rosie had nicknamed “Fake Jo.” Make him regret his life choices, remember? “How are you, Will?”

“I’m well, thank you.” He took my hand in his. His skin felt warm but dry, unlike my own, since I was sweating up a storm. Stupid Florida humidity.

He’d changed since I’d seen him at the airport that morning. He’d been unable to do anything about his hair—it still fell in unruly dark curls around his handsome, angular face—but he’d made an effort to get rid of some of the five-day stubble, at least. He’d ditched the jeans and Timbs for a white cotton button-down, the sleeves rolled up at the elbow to reveal muscular, tanned forearms, and pale blue linen trousers. He looked cool, calm, and collected.

It wasn’t fair. He had the home-court advantage and knew it.

But I wasn’t going to let him win, any more than Kitty Katz ever let her mortal enemy, Raul Wolf, win when they competed against each other during school debates and spelling bees.

“I’m so glad you were able to come,” Will said to me in that deep voice that fans of his audiobooks loved so much.

“Thanks for inviting me. You have a lovely home.” How I longed to throw stones through those glass windows of his. “I met your sister, Chloe, just now.”

Will’s dark eyebrows lifted, registering surprise. But before he could say anything, Molly cried, “Oh, Chloe! Isn’t she sweet? She and my stepdaughter, Katie, have become inseparable since Will and Chloe moved here. We’re so lucky to have them both on the island. Will’s become such an asset to the literary community, and Chloe is—well, Chloe is Chloe!”

I couldn’t help it: I smirked. Will Price, an asset to the literary community? More like an ass.

I know. Real mature. But I can’t help it, I write for kids.

Unfortunately, Will seemed to notice my little smirk, since I saw those dark eyes narrow at me.

“Sure,” I said, wiping the smile off my face. I should never have touched the wine. “I can imagine.”

“Anyway, if you’ll both excuse me,” Molly said, “I have to go help everyone find their seats. Ms. Wright, you’re at the Hemingway table over—”

“Oh, yes, I know. And I told you, it’s Jo, please.”

“Right! Jo!” Molly twinkled at us, then waddled over to where Kellyjean was causing a huge clog in the flow of traffic, not because she didn’t know where her seat was, but because her sandals had finally become too much for her, and she’d sat down in the middle of the beach and begun undoing them.

That left Will Price and me alone with each other for the first time since we’d been in that green room together at Novel Con a year and a half ago.

Well, as alone as two people could be at a dinner party with over fifty other people milling around them.

We hadn’t really been alone in that green room, either. People had kept coming in and out.

But I, at least, had thought we’d gotten along so well. Besides bonding over the terrible coffee, we’d chatted about how difficult it was, getting up so early to give a speech to so many people. (Novel Con was one of the largest annual fan conventions in the publishing industry, and there was no greater honor than giving the breakfast speech on day one of the convention, but it wasn’t glamorous. It required being in the green room by six A.M., while the audience of five thousand filed in to find their seats at their tables in the auditorium by eight.)

Will had even complimented my dress. I’d splurged for once and hired a stylist who’d assured me that the “springtime green” designer wrap dress she’d chosen and I’d purchased (for an exorbitant amount of money, or at least what seemed like it to a girl who was used to picking up bargains at factory outlets) would bring out the blue of my eyes and what were then the honey-blond highlights in my hair.

It seemed to have worked, too. I’d caught Will surreptitiously checking me out.

And I hadn’t minded, because I’d been admiring the broadness of his shoulders in his dark blue sports coat, the way the corners of his mouth turned up at the sides, and, yes, God help me, the slight but perfectly noticeable bulge in the front of his oh-so-perfectly form-fitting jeans.

But why shouldn’t we have checked each other out? We were around the same age, and in the same line of work. And of course we’d both been plagiarized by the same person. We’d even bonded over that (or so I’d thought) as we’d waited to be called to give our speeches, describing how each of us had found out (he’d been told by his publisher, I’d been tweeted by a fan) and what a weirdo Nicole was for thinking she’d get away with it.

I’d honestly thought that despite his terrible books (simply not my taste, given that I’d experienced the death of a loved one firsthand, and didn’t care to relive that trauma through fiction), Will Price seemed like a nice person.

What a pity, I’d thought at the time, that I’m saddled with Justin, who claims to be a writer but never actually writes anything and then complains that we never go out because I’m too busy writing all the timeI could maybe see myself with a guy like Will. Or maybe even Will himself.

It wasn’t until the next week, when the Times story hit, that I learned what a mistake that line of thinking had been.

I sipped my wine—the server had come around again to refill my glass—and decided Will should be the one to speak next. Also that what he said had better be an apology or I wasn’t going to say another word to him all night, which would be awkward, considering I was sitting beside him.

He did speak next, but he didn’t apologize. Instead, he said, “Chloe told you, didn’t she?”

This was so unexpected that I forgot all about not speaking to him until he apologized. “Told me what?”

He studied my face for a moment, his brown eyes—as dark as the shadows beyond the festively lit tables—seeming to rake my face, looking for some clue that I knew . . . what?

Then, apparently deciding I didn’t know whatever it was, and that he was in the clear, he reached in relief for one of the wineglasses that had been poured on the table nearest us, even though it wasn’t his assigned seat, and took a hearty swig.

“Never mind,” he said.

Now I forgot all about not speaking until I got an apology. He thought I didn’t know what his lovely sister had told me—that she was a fan of my books! After all the nasty things he’d said about me and my writing (well, all right, it was only one nasty thing, but one was enough), it turned out that his own kin adored me and my creation!

“As a matter of fact, she did tell me,” I said, feeling a rush of exultation. “She told me everything.”

This couldn’t have had a more satisfying effect. Those deliciously dark eyes of his widened, and the normally upturned corners of that pouty mouth—what was such a small mouth doing on so large a man, anyway?—sloped downward.

“She did?”

“Oh, yes.” I was loving this. My mother’s ancestors were so right. Revenge delayed was the very best kind. “Absolutely. And I can’t say I’m surprised.”

He seemed to have forgotten the wineglass in his hand. It sank so low that the little remaining liquid in it was spilling out, splashing onto the sand.

“You’re . . . you’re not?”

“Of course not.” I was really impressed with how assertive I was being. Bernadette would have been proud. “I have fans her age all over the world . . . some from much farther away than England. And your sister is hardly the first to tell me that my books got her through a difficult time—the worst time in her entire life, I think, is how she put it. Which makes me wonder if things got a little awkward for you around your house after she found out how you threw me under the bus to the Times the last time we met.”

The wineglass in his hand righted itself, and his head came up. It had been sinking, along with his shoulders, the entire time I’d been talking, until he’d begun to resemble one of those saints paying penance in all those paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a totally hot saint. But a saint nonetheless.

But now he straightened and asked in a tone of surprise, his dark eyes narrowing, “Wait . . . that’s what Chloe told you? That she’s a fan of your books?”

“Yes, of course.” What was wrong with him? “What did you think she said?”

“Nothing.” He set the now empty wineglass down on the nearby table and seemed to exhale—in relief.

“Why?” I demanded sharply. “Are you going to try to tell me it’s not true? Because I was standing right over there when she said it. She and her friend the sheriff’s daughter and their other friend, Sharmaine, all said—”

“Oh, no.” He toed some of the wine-damp sand. “It’s true.”

Then why on earth was he looking so relieved? He should have been looking ashamed—ashamed for being such a judgmental hater of literature for girls (and some boys, and of course non-binary children as well).

“So what happened?” I asked. “Did you think neither of us were going to notice when you decided to talk smack about Kitty Katz to the press? Because I can assure you that I did. My own father wrote to let me know. He has a Google alert on my name. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be called by your dad and told that internationally bestselling author Will Price—who I thought was a friend of mine—was going around saying that Nicole Woods should have had better taste than to copy me? How do you think that made me feel?”

Finally he looked up. And this time when he did, I could see that there was heat in those dark eyes of his. What kind of heat—shame, anger, humiliation, all three—I couldn’t tell. But something was flaring there, deep inside the darkness.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that was so low, I could barely hear it above the excited chatter of the other dinner guests, the squeaking of wooden chairs as they sat, and the clink of silverware as they hungrily attacked their salads. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. It shouldn’t have.”

Wait. What was going on? Was he apologizing?

“I was going through a difficult personal time.” He was still talking, that deep voice so quiet, it was almost a purr. “I wasn’t as selective of my words as I ought to have been. But I realize that’s no excuse.”

“Wait,” I said, confused.

I realized I must have been gaping at him, but none of this was going to plan. He wasn’t supposed to apologize, or make excuses. He was supposed to haughtily ignore me or maybe call for his butler to haul me from his grand tropical estate.

He wasn’t supposed to say he was sorry.

I had no idea how to react except to keep going, saying all the things I’d rehearsed saying to him a thousand times in my head . . . although of course I’d never imagined him apologizing, so nothing I’d planned made sense anymore . . . especially since it was getting all garbled in my head with what he’d said.

“You were going through a difficult time? You completely dissed me and basically the entirety of children’s literature because you were going through a difficult time? I’ve gone through difficult times, Will, and I’ve managed to keep my feelings about other people’s books to myself. And believe me, my feelings about your books aren’t particularly positive.”

I wasn’t going to mention that I couldn’t put down The Moment. That was beside the point. Especially now that I’d noticed that Bernadette, over at the Elizabeth Bishop table, was watching my interaction with Will intently, making questioning faces and mouthing something that looked like Are you all right?

Meanwhile Garrett, over at the Tennessee Williams table, was giving me a mock golf clap for finally standing up to the great Will Price. Neither of them were close enough to hear what I was saying, but apparently my body language was giving me away.

I was on a roll. This was my big chance to finally tell Will Price what I thought of him.

Except none of it felt as good as I’d imagined it would feel.

Still, I kept going. I had to. For all of womankind and children’s literature and my mother and Sicily and, of course, cats.

“Were you on drugs or something?” I demanded. “Are you trying to tell me that sleeping pills made you do it, like Nicole? Because I’ve taken sleeping pills and they’ve never made me say really mean things about other writers’ work to journalists before.”

“No, I was not on drugs.”

Now Will’s deep voice really was a growl. And it wasn’t hard at all to tell what he was feeling. The heat in his eyes had disappeared. His gaze had turned as cold as the steel and concrete his house was made of.

He didn’t resemble a penitent saint anymore, either. He looked a lot more like the coal-eyed devil I’d always known him to be. His lean jaw was set so firmly that there was a muscle leaping beneath it, like a spring that was about to come flying loose.

“Look,” he whispered. He had to whisper because Kellyjean was coming over, tripping barefoot across the sand toward us with a questioning look on her face. Knowing Kellyjean, she was probably going to ask Will if there were water sprites living in his pool or something because she’d just seen one. “I really am sorry about what I said. I ought to have apologized a lot sooner, but I—well, I’ve never been very good with words—”

“Hold up. Never been very good with words? Will, you’re one of the bestselling writers in the world.

“Even so.” The muscle in his jaw was jumping all over the place. His eyes were like twin embers. “Sometimes I find it difficult to express myself. And I—”

“Sorry to interrupt.” Kellyjean floated up to us in her bare feet and shimmery maxi dress. “But aren’t you Will Price?”

Of course Will was one of the few people not wearing his name badge. Why would he? He was Will Price, easily recognizable from having his books in every spinner rack in every bookstore in every airport and grocery store in the world. Sometimes there were even life-sized cardboard cutouts of him standing beside the displays of his books—cutouts that I longed to punch, but never had the guts to.

Kitty Katz, of course, would have.

“I just wanted to introduce myself,” Kellyjean went on, apparently oblivious to the animosity crackling in the air between Will and me, even though Kellyjean insisted she was very much in touch with people’s auras. “You probably recognize me as Victoria Maynard, the author of the Salem Prairie series, but my real name is Kellyjean Murphy. I’m sure you’ve heard of my books—there’s a Netflix show based on them.”

“Hello, Kellyjean.” Will’s voice sounded strained, though he smiled as warmly as someone who might actually have heard of and enjoyed the Salem Prairie series, which I highly doubted he had, since it performed best with female readers/viewers ages 18–54 and heavily featured CGI shape-shifting wolf sex. I’d never missed an episode. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Oh, likewise! Thank you so much for hosting us tonight, and for inviting me. Your home is so lovely. I just can’t get over the pool. It’s all I can do not to rip off my dress and jump in right now.”

“Well, feel free.” He kept up the fake smile while I watched the muscle in his jaw continue to leap around like Miss Kitty on catnip. “I want all of my guests to enjoy themselves.”

Kellyjean tittered as Will laid a hand on one of my bare arms.

Will Price was touching me. Why was Will Price touching me? Why was I enjoying the fact that Will Price was touching me?

“If you don’t mind,” he said to Kellyjean, “we need to take our seats. I know the caterer’s anxious that we get through the salad course so they can begin serving the main while it’s hot.”

“Oh, of course!” Kellyjean began to back away. “But I’m going to take you up on that invitation for a swim!”

“Sure,” Will said. “Anytime.”

Then he began steering me toward our table, speaking to me in that same low, intense voice he’d used before.

“Look,” he said. “I know I’m not in much of a position to ask favors from you. But I’m going to ask one of you anyway: accept my apology. If you can’t, I’ll totally understand, but please at least try to pretend to get along with me for this weekend, which I and many others have worked hard to make as enjoyable as possible for you. If you can’t do it for me, do it for my sister’s sake. She’s been through a lot—more than you can imagine—and she loves you and your books so much.”

I stared straight ahead as these last few words sunk in.

What the whiskers? What had just happened? Will Price had apologized, and I’d let him? I’d actually let him, just because his sister had had a bad time (and so had he) and, also, she liked my books?

Apparently, I had.

Because now I was letting him take me to our table, and pull out my chair for me, and sit down next to me, and hand me my napkin, and make polite small talk with the other people at our table, who turned out to be Molly and her sheriff husband, Mrs. Tifton and her dog, some friends of Mrs. Tifton’s, and Saul and Frannie.

And now I was letting him pour more wine into my glass, and ask if I’d prefer vinaigrette or blue cheese dressing on my salad (there were small serving pitchers of both on the table).

“Uh, vinaigrette is fine,” I heard myself murmur.

Then he poured the vinaigrette on my salad. Like he was my waiter!

And I sat there with my fork in my hand, thinking, Should I just go ahead and start eating? Or grab my bag and run for my life?

Because this was not the natural order of things. Will Price turning out to be a kind person who actually cared about my feelings—or anyone else’s—was not something I’d ever considered remotely possible.

There seemed to be only one reasonable course of action under the circumstances, and that was to drink as much wine as possible.

The Moment by Will Price

I finally convinced her to let me take her out for a meal. But as the waiter set course after course down in front of me, I tasted none of it. She was my meal. My eyes feasted on her whenever I thought she wouldn’t catch me looking.

What was even more amazing was that she seemed to like me, too. She laughed at my jokes, her smile radiating across the table like a second sun. Even when she wasn’t laughing, her face was still alive with animation, her every mood flickering across those lovely blue eyes like goldfish in a pool.

I wasn’t the only one looking at her. Every head in the place turned to admire her as I helped her into her coat, male as well as female. I thought I might burst with pride at the fact that she was there with me.

The only problem was how—and when—to tell her how I felt.


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